Addressing the current controversy over public broadcasting in the United States, the firing of the NPR CEO and calls for its defunding in Congress, the NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen has one of those posts up that is just so absolutely spot-on you want to quote the whole thing. Well worth reading. Here’s a few key points:
Wake up, public media people! You have no magic exemption from the requirements of political maturity. There are people out there who seek your destruction, and they are not evenly distributed. They reside among culture warriors on the political right. That is a fact, and you are in the business of reporting facts.
…[the public media] weakness is not simply a matter of missing backbone. It is related to the inability to think politically about what it takes to secure a space for public broadcasting in this country.
I think this goes back to the basic analysis offered by the Lippmann/Chomsky critique of “manufacturing consent”; that the media is not just there to report news but does political work (acquiring the consent of the elite and the pleebs* to be governed).
Rosen offers some thoughtful solutions, beginning with one that I think is highly suggestive, and radical:
Abandon viewlessness as the official ideology at NPR. Replace it with pluralism. Meaning: NPR acknowledges that the people who work for it have a diverse mix of views and starting points. It is unreasonable to expect that these won’t factor into their work, but it is perfectly reasonable to hold everyone at NPR to basic standards: accuracy, fairness, intellectual honesty and transparency. That means you can click on the name of any editorial staffer and find out where they’re coming from.
You could extend this to other news outlets as well. Funnily enough, NPR addressed this very point in January when they compared the UK and US press. As they put it, describing the British (newspaper) press: “Get the facts. Be fair. And reflect a particular political tradition.” They even said that the differences between the US and UK provide insight into the political assessment of the media in America. Pity they couldn’t translate that insight.
Renounce the two percent or so of its budget that it gets directly from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting or other federal agencies, eliminating that as an hot button issue. (NPR finances are explained here.)
The idea is to jettison public funding and therefore political control and threats of defunding. This one is more problematic. The point behind public broadcasting is that we see a press that is not beholden to corporations and interest groups as a public good. (Eg the BBC in the UK, funded through TV licences.) The same goes for public education of course, and a second point here is access. The NYT and WaPo cost money at point of purchase, as does a degree from say GSU, and not all can afford to access it. (Even as things go online you’ll need a computer and broadband.) The “public” here then refers to it being publicly funded and publicly accessible.
If public defunding does take place a replacement would have to be found that kept adverts out and was still free at point of access. I think public subscription/pledges only takes you so far–would it support BBC stringers around the world for instance, never mind staff journalists doing investigative journalism (ie not day-to-day reporting).
*to use a word from Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, a pun on plebeian.